*. I’m a fan of Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black. It deliberately sets out to tell an old-fashioned, gothic ghost story and succeeds wonderfully. I don’t usually find horror fiction scary, but Hill’s book, despite being so formulaic, was an exception.
*. This film adaptation doesn’t quite measure up. It starts out sticking to the strict simplicity of Hill’s story. There’s a haunted house. A vengeful ghost. A town with a dark secret. And all the trappings are just as familiar to genre fans: glimpses of mysterious figures in the distance, typically through windows. A rocking chair that rocks by itself. Music boxes that play by themselves. Long, dark corridors. On the DVD commentary director James Watkins says there’s “nothing as scary as a dark corridor.”
*. All of this works pretty well, as there’s some truth to the old adage that you can’t go wrong with the classics. The problem is that there’s not enough that’s new here, and what is new isn’t all that good.
*. It’s a great looking movie. I loved the design of the old house, both interiors and exteriors, but can we imagine some old lady living out on that island in such a mansion alone? Who’s bringing her groceries?
*. Some of the genre elements I mentioned get leaned on a bit too heavily. While it’s fine to see Daniel Radcliffe slowly stalking down one of those scary dark hallways with a candle once, its not as much fun the second and third time around. And are mechanical toys really all that frightening? They just made me think I was back in Andrew Wyke’s house in Sleuth.
*. Meanwhile, what is new here misfires. This is especially the case in the film’s final act. For some reason Kipps (Radcliffe) gets it in his head that the way to placate the ghost is to dig up the body of her son and do some sort of ritual reburial with it, first in the house and then out in the cemetery. There’s nothing at all like this in Hill’s book and I can’t imagine where Kipps got this idea from unless he’d been watching Ringu/The Ring recently.
*. That’s not actually too big a stretch either, as Watkins mentions on the commentary that he thought of the film as “morphing” gothic with J-horror. And to be fair there is an obvious connection between Hill’s story and J-horror’s drowned kids and grieving moms.
*. Then there is the happy ending, about which the less said the better. Apparently it was a late addition because test audiences found the original ending a downer. What a disastrous cave. I can’t imagine Watkins, whose previous film was the utterly heartless Eden Lake, liked the idea. In any event, and whatever the business rationale, the resulting mush is awful.
*. Daniel Radcliffe. I haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter movies and never will (I haven’t read the books either), so he doesn’t carry any of that baggage with me. I think he does well here, though he appears to be rather strung out even before he gets to Eel Marsh House so we don’t really see him falling apart. And seeing normal people fall apart, coming unwound and cracking under the pressure, is what most haunted house stories are all about.
*. James Watkins. He talks a lot on the commentary about less being more, and I think that may have been what he wanted, but it doesn’t strike me as the kind of filmmaker he is. His constant peering into the dark isn’t very effective, which is surprising seeing as the book was basically being rewritten on how to do this kind of thing at the time. Just look at David Sandberg’s short film Lights Out for how a dark corridor can be made threatening.
*. Instead of building suspense the film falls back on jump scares. But these also fall short. Is it that Jennet stays too distant from us? I don’t think that’s it. One can compare her role here to the horrifying appearances of Miss Jessel, who also often appears at some distance, in The Innocents and get some sense of what I think is missing.
*. But we don’t have to go as far back as The Innocents. In 1989 there was a British television adaptation of The Woman in Black directed by Herbert Wise and written by Nigel Kneale. It sticks much closer to Hill’s story and I find it a lot scarier. In particular it makes an interesting contrast with this film for the number of scenes where Jennet appears in broad daylight, which is also very like the appearances of Miss Jessel in The Innocents. These scenes are truly unnerving. Instead of using darkness and concealment to frighten us, Wise uses distance and, in one memorable scene, sudden foreshortening (similar to what is done here, but more effective). I’m always surprised horror filmmakers don’t exploit this technique more.
*. This is a traditional ghost story that might have been better if it had been even more traditional. Which would have been dancing with the girl that brought it. If they’d stuck with Hill’s novella, and taken inspiration from Wise’s adaptation, I think they would have had a better movie. As it is, I imagine most people who haven’t read the book will be lost. Is there any explanation here of the circumstances surrounding the death of Nathaniel aside from there having been some kind of accident on the causeway? Meanwhile, the new stuff seems anachronistic in a bad way. At some point I think you have to choose what kind of a horror movie you’re making and stick with it. And whatever you do, don’t listen to test audiences.